The 1899 Cuban Marriage Law Controversy: Church, State and Empire in the Crucible of Nation

By Logan, Enid Lynette | Journal of Social History, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The 1899 Cuban Marriage Law Controversy: Church, State and Empire in the Crucible of Nation


Logan, Enid Lynette, Journal of Social History


In December 1898, U.S. and Spanish officials signed the treaty of Paris, ending three decades of anti-colonial revolution in Cuba and nearly four hundred years of Spanish rule. (1) Cuba did not gain full independence with this act however, as those present agreed that the island would be transferred from a colony of Spain to a protectorate of the U.S. In the present essay, I analyze a battle over marriage that took place during the first occupation of Cuba (1899-1902), among elites occupying the upper levels of Cuba's religious and political orders. From the point of view of U.S. administrators, this period marked the end of the Spanish empire and the opening of the age of American imperial rule. For Cuban politicians and Church officials, the immediate post-colonial era constituted a crucial juncture for the emergence of the Cuban state, the redefinition of the powers of the Church, and the articulation and implantation of visions of nation. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that questions of nation, sovereignty, and empire lay at the heart of the marriage battle.

The conflict in question surrounded the May 1899 issuance of a marriage law known as Military Order No. 66. This decree was authored by Jose Antonio Gonzalez Lanuza, an outspoken member of the revolutionary party, who sat as the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction in the American-led Cuban cabinet. It declared that marriage was a fundamentally civil contract, and as such, only marriages performed by a secular authority would be recognized by the state. While individuals were free to wed according to the dictates of their respective religions, religious marriages would no longer be accorded legal validity. Thus with the passage of Military Order No. 66, the Catholic Church--which, in the colonial era had been both the only tolerated religious sect, and the only institution authorized to solemnize marriage--was entirely divested of jurisdiction over an area of civil life in which it had held near exclusive competence for over three centuries.

Soon after the publication of this law, a stunned and outraged Church officialdom sent up a vigorous protest. Havana's controversial and fiery Bishop Manuel Santander issued a public statement denouncing the U.S. military government, and declaring that the state could not annul the authority of the Church. San-tandems successor, Italian-born Donato Sbaretti, officially elevated the Church's protest to the office of the U.S. administration, and demanded that all religious marriages be recognized before the law, as in the United States. General Leonard Wood, the Military Governor of Cuba, decided to solicit the opinions of Cuba's political elite on the matter, and declared that he would rule based upon the consensus of the majority.

The findings of Wood's inquiry were overwhelming and unambiguous. The radical marriage decree was supported by public officials throughout the island, ranging in rank from municipal councilmen to the justices of the Supreme Court. Though Bishop Sbaretti found scattered support among those surveyed, the vast majority unequivocally opposed his proposal. Characterizing the Church's position as arrogant, absurd, and unacceptable, nationalists argued that the 1899 marriage law must be upheld in order to protect the vital interests of the nascent state: effecting the final separation of civil and religious powers, eradicating the Spanish colonial legacy, and verifying national sovereignty. Many claimed that the passage of the law was a key step towards Cuba's transformation into a modern, democratic nation, fit for membership among the great nations of the world.

Despite the tide of opinion in its favor, the 1899 Marriage Law was eventually overturned by the American military government. For the moment, then, the Church retained its ability to legally solemnize marriage, and the issue was not discussed again on a national level until the divorce debates of 1914-1918. …

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